Black Lives, Health Care Justice, HIV Stigma -- and Beyoncé's Lemonade!

An Interview With Maximillian Boykin

Maximillian Boykin
Maximillian Boykin
Christopher ThoughtPoet Brown

Several weeks ago, before the first round of Trump-era Republicans' attempts to kill Obamacare and expanded Medicaid was thankfully shot down in Congress, our fabulous, Philly-based HIV-positive contributor Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad, 33, an organizer with Philly's Black and Brown Workers Collective, had a looonnnnggg and juicy chat with Maximillian Boykin, 27, community advocacy and social justice manager at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. (He's also the co-manager of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance and a member of Black Youth Project 100). Many topics were discussed, all of them intersecting in one way or another with HIV. Get comfortable and enjoy the conversation!

Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad: Hi there, Maxx!

Maximillian Boykin: Hi, Abdul-Aliy!

A-AM: It's a pleasure to be chatting with you today about our lives, the challenges we face and the joy we live despite the challenges. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

MB: Sure. My full name is Maximillian Mathis Boykin. I was born and mostly raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. My parents are from Alabama: My dad is from Selma, and my mom is from Montgomery. They were both raised during the civil rights movement, so they brought me up stressing the importance of going out to vote, the importance of civic duty. My dad also came up in the Black Power movement of the '70s. My parents made sure that my two sisters and I really understood the importance of where we came from and what we had to fight for to get what we have today.

I've been in Chicago now for the last three years. I dropped out of school in Savannah, Georgia, to work on President Obama's campaign in 2012, went back to school for a little bit and then went back to work on three campaigns in Virginia: Terry McAuliffe's campaign and the two special state senate elections. But, at the time, I became less enamored of the Democratic Party because I've seen how it pandered for black votes and didn't expand Medicaid in Virginia; they didn't keep their promises. I saw how the Party wasn't doing enough to actually get people things they needed -- like Medicaid expansion in Virginia.

A-AM: What brought you to Chicago?

MB: I wanted to learn more about organizing, to become a better organizer. The first year I was here, 2014, I worked on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, and really getting people a chance to have access to it. I learned a lot about Chicago. I worked on the South Side and in the southern suburbs all the way down to Champaign. Since then, I've also worked on the Fight for $15 campaign with SEIU -- to raise the Illinois minimum wage to $15 -- before coming here to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

A-AM: What is it you love so much about organizing?

MB: I love being in the community, talking to folks and seeing how we can strategize to get people more rights than they already have. From the electoral campaigns I've worked on to what I'm doing now, I've always worked in black communities. I love working with my people to try to make sure that they can access the things they deserve, you know? That includes not just proper health care but proper jobs and access to better education and living wages. I'm always thinking about what we can do to make sure they can have access to this so-called American Dream. And that means fighting against racist laws, against sexist or heteronormative education. It means fighting a lot of the things this country is built on. And now more than ever, we are under attack from many lawmakers.

A-AM: I think about social determinants of health often, for example, how black and brown people are simultaneously targeted by the state and vulnerable to HIV. So, let's talk a little about how these big issues intersect with HIV.

MB: I work for AFC, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. I am the community advocacy and social justice manager, which means I work on things like training advocates on the state and national level around how they can talk to legislators and help strategize about affordable health care. I am also the co-manager of HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, which is a 13,000-member network that is fighting for social justice issues, fighting against the social determinants of health. An example of this would be the case of Michael Johnson, who was convicted of spreading HIV, to uplift his case and repeal and modernize state-specific HIV criminalization laws.

We're really trying to hit the big issues and get us to a nation free of HIV, working from the epidemic's structural roots. We are not going to end HIV without ending poverty, without ending homophobia and until we stop teaching history and sexual education in heteronormative ways.

I'm also a member of Black Youth Project 100,which is a group of 18- to 35-year-old activists and organizers from across the country fighting for black liberation.

On a more personal note, I got into a lot of these issues partly because I had an uncle who died in 2015. He was a gay black man living in Alabama who had been incarcerated, and I saw how that impacted his overall health, how not having Medicaid expansion in Alabama prior to his death in 2015 impacted him, and how his death impacted the health and wellness of his family, the people around him. Through him, I understood how these issues -- incarceration, health, not having access to a job -- all intersect.

So, when I had the opportunity to work on the intersections of these issues at AFC, just a few months after his death, that felt right. I'd been looking for a new way to help make change that's best for black folks. It felt very timely to go ahead and make that jump and start a social justice program that AFC had not had before. The program helps make people most impacted by HIV better advocates. And not just advocates that can speak on HIV issues, because we have many issues to address. I've worked on the southwest side of the city, which is primarily people of Mexican Chicano descent and Latino descent, and the South Side, which is majority black. I think Illinois has the best damn advocates in the country!

A-AM: Our survival rests on disrupting the policy goals of Trump and right-wing Republicans. How do we continue being strong advocates for our own lives in the Trump era when Republicans are trying to dismantle health care?

MB: The policies that the Trump administration is trying to put into place are some of the scariest things we've ever seen in this country. After many years of our hard-won progress on health care, they're still trying to kill the Affordable Care Act [editor's note: This remains true even after Republicans pulled Obamacare repeal off the table in late March, facing a lack of votes to make it happen]. Currently, 55% of people living in Illinois have access to health insurance. People have been able to sign up for Medicaid expansion and access the health care marketplace. That is a 52% increase from 2013 to 2016. That is huge. Over 20,000 people living with HIV now have access to better health insurance than they ever had before. If the current programs are cut or repealed, it's likely fewer people will have coverage, or they will have to pay more for less coverage. So, we really have to keep pushing back against repeal and say, "OK, if you want to do something, make this better while making sure that we still have access to health insurance."

A-AM: And health care isn't even the only thing they are going after.

MB: Look at immigration. This country is built on two things, slaves' bodies and on immigrant labor. Now they want to start immigration bans. Yes, this country has done that in the past. But we don't need to make those bad decisions again. The only people that those decisions favor are rich white men who are already in power.

We are hearing a lot about sanctuary cities for immigrants. But sanctuary to me is more than an immigrant issue. We have seen transgender people being killed in their communities and young women and girls, both cisgender and transgender, harassed, raped and murdered. Let's expand the meaning of sanctuary to encompass everyone who's impacted by xenophobic laws. We must push policies that decriminalize our communities along with ending deportations. And that includes decriminalizing sex work and drug use, which many in our communities have had to do because society has sucked resources from black and brown communities for years. This is why I truly believe in divesting support from institutions that harm us -- such as police and prisons -- and investing in institutions that actually keep us safe, such as schools, work programs and mental health institutions.

A-AM: Focusing back in on HIV a little, what are your thoughts about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the HIV prevention pill regimen?

MB: I think PrEP is a good tool that can be used to make sure that people do not get HIV. But I also worry about it. Why is it priced so high? Why is it so hard for some people, especially in the South, to access? Is the goal of Gilead, who makes the drug, to end the epidemic or to make the most money? I also think we have to make sure that people are getting educated on everything surrounding PrEP, so they understand the risks with it. Especially black people, who have been used and abused by medicine in the past. Are we talking to folks in the community to see how they feel about it? I remember when I first talked to a black trans woman about PrEP, she said: "That's some white-people shit. That sounds like something that I will never understand, have access to or have the ability to use. Right? Or something that they are trying to infect me with in some way? I don't get it."

I was able to explain it to her, talk her through it, talk about the importance of having it. But her feelings were not uncommon among many people when it comes to new medicines that are out there. New medicines and treatments are a beautiful thing, but we need to make sure that people understand how they help them, or not.

A-AM: I personally think PrEP is a useful tool and that we need biomedical interventions linked with strategies that account for other systems of oppression to reduce HIV infection rates. What are your thoughts around how we can disrupt HIV stigma? To me, stigma related to HIV is easily framed when you talk about responsibility. When you ask a seronegative person who's responsible for disclosure and for their health, they overburden poz people, but this responsibility is actually shared.

MB: I think a lot of people try to put the onus of the conversation on people with HIV talking about their HIV status. And that's important. So many people don't know that they have family members that are HIV-positive. But I also think one of the biggest ways to end HIV stigma -- and also stigma around being queer, because those are attached in many ways -- is getting rid of heteronormative sex education, which can uphold rigid gender norms and fail to discuss sex or intimacy that isn't male/female binary.

Sex ed has to get up-to-date. I have talked to family members who still believe many things about HIV that they were told in the early '90s when there weren't antiretroviral drugs or PrEP! And most people hear about sex from older people in their family or older friends. You have to educate people somewhere -- not just students, but also their parents. They don't know that they have access to all these different things -- and continued access to things such as female condoms.

Sex is supposed to be a pleasurable thing. So, let's not talk about it in terms of abstinence as the only option. Let's talk about contracting sexually transmitted infections [STIs], but let's help people understand what different STIs mean, what they can do about it, how they can live and survive.

So, it's not just having more people understand that there are people living and thriving with HIV. It's also about saying, "Hey, these are the things we can give you to live with it or to continue to live without it," like PrEP. We need to make sure that people understand all these things.

A-AM: Being poz myself, I struggle a lot around the question of what "safety" looks like in a sexual context. Often, condom use gets centered, when we know from data or anecdotal evidence that condoms aren't always used. So, how do we talk about safety without just saying "condom use, condom use?"

MB: We can't just focus on condoms because that hasn't worked. To just keep telling people to use condoms is not going to end the epidemic. There are other ways people can safely have the sex they want. I think U=U, undetectable = uninfectious, is huge. People on antiretroviral drugs, who are undetectable, are not spreading HIV. That needs to be frequently talked about, but it's not. And of course, there's PrEP. We should be talking about all the options. What about partners getting tested together? Let's make that a real thing, even more normalized.

A-AM: So, let's turn the conversation around a little and talk about this movement of black joy. When I think of black joy, I think of Kleaver Cruz's project as a counterweight to all our struggles. When you hear the term "black joy," what do you think about?

MB: When I think of black joy I think of The Party Noire, a party hosted by three black women. I think about the space that they have created, about people having a good time. It's what I call "black space." It's where people can be themselves, especially black, queer, feminist spaces, where people feel safe, where people can have a great time, learn together, eat together, really enjoy time with one another -- something that, a lot of times, we are not allowed to do in this country. When I think of black joy, I think of my mother's cooking. I think of my mom's mac-n-cheese and greens. I can just eat those greens and mac-n-cheese all day! I think of times with my family back in Georgia, with my extended family in Alabama.

A-AM: Thank you for that. Thank you. So, people have been saying that black joy is a form of resistance. So, when you hear the word "resistance," what comes to mind?

MB: I think of creating that space for people to be joyous, but also of resisting racist and sexist ideology: the idea that the only way for America to be great is for white men to be in charge. And it's resistance to oppression against anyone: immigrants, people of color, black folks, women, trans people, queer people. I think of people being in the streets, standing up for their beliefs and the people they love, making sure they have rights.

A-AM: What about when you hear the word "lemonade"?

MB: Beyoncé's Lemonade is one of the greatest albums of all time. I think about Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, showing out, and really, me loving it so very much.

A-AM: And what about the movie Moonlight? Do you think it's changed the narrative about being gay or queer in black communities?

MB: Many times in pop culture, the black or queer character has to be in support of a straight, white character for the work to be mainstream. I think Moonlight opened some eyes on what it means to be black, gay or queer in this country, especially down South. For many I know, it was the first time they had seen something like their story in film. It's important to see all the stories of what it means to be black, in all its complexity and beauty. I hope Moonlight opens up the way for more stories to be told.

A-AM: Moonlight teaches us about love rituals. From the moment Chiron heard Kevin's voice on the telephone, you see the great care someone takes when in love. What do you think about Moonlight in the context of love?

MB: Love is something that looks and feels different for each person. It can also be hard and complicated and doesn't always make sense, which is the beautiful and scary part about it.

A-AM: Cool, Maxx, thanks. One final question: What keeps you pushing forward and energized in your work?

MB: Every time I get a new advocate, I talk to them, whether an HIV advocate or a young person that comes in through Black Youth Project 100. Seeing that new energy, seeing a lot of people who are marching -- especially the Women's March or the marches against the Muslim ban -- seeing people come out and shut down airports and say, "No, this is not happening today," that has been beautiful and has really inspired me to do more to make sure that people have long, healthy lives. Because there ain't nothing more important.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Read Abdul-Aliy's blog, Chanting From the Margins: When Blackness, Queerness and HIV Intersect.